Friday, 12 June 2015

Theatre review: Image of an Unknown Young Woman

In an unspecified country with a poor human rights record and a corrupt government, a woman wearing a yellow dress offers no resistance when the police attack and shoot her. Her identity and fate are unknown, but the attack is being filmed and the clip soon goes viral worldwide - as the story begins, a chorus of Oliver Birch, Emilie Patry and Isaac Ssebandeke send each other the link and react with a mixture of horror and voyeuristic excitement. Elinor Cook's Image of an Unknown Young Woman follows the repercussions of the image becoming public, both in the country itself where it sparks protests that could even become a revolution, and internationally. Although the character names suggest we're in a Middle Eastern country, the colourblind casting and stark, industrial design in Christopher Haydon's production at the Gate lend the story a universality - and unpredictability.

On Fly Davis' catwalk-like set, we follow a few different stories, including that of Ali (Ashley Zhangazha,) who shot and first shared the video, and his girlfriend Layla (Anjana Vasan,) as they deal with the way their small protest has exploded into something with international implications - and has put them both in danger.

And in London, wealthy divorcée Candace (Susan Brown) is putting both her ex-husband's money and her anger towards him, into a charity protecting children in the war-torn area. But what Nia (Wendy Kweh,) the charismatic face of the charity, isn't being entirely honest about is just where all the cash is going. But the most haunting figure is cut by Eileen Walsh as Yasmin, whose elderly mother was accidentally caught up in the outbreak of violence, and who's been searching for her ever since.

Walsh's portrayal of utter frustrated exhaustion is outstanding, but there's strong work from the whole cast - mention has to go to the three-strong chorus for the variety of roles, from protesters to shadowy government agents, they get through over the 90 minutes. Birch and Ssebandeke even play a pair of schoolgirls in a scene both comic and sinister, and the fact that the absurdity doesn't derail the play demonstrates how well Haydon's production balances a number of themes and tones.

Image of an Unknown Young Woman demonstrates a lot of the features that have become trademarks of the Gate: A short, sharp political play that cannily uses everything from shock to unexpected comedy to help the audience empathise with a situation that could easily feel alien; as well as an inventive use of the space from Davis, whose set holds a few surprises of its own. And it's another example of how you don't know what to expect when you go into this theatre, except a fresh and memorable approach.

Image of an Unknown Young Woman by Elinor Cook is booking until the 27th of June at the Gate Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

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